Land of brightly coloured textiles, volcanoes & a special spider.
Guatemala aptly means ‘place of trees’. It has 15 million people, 40% of them are indigenous and 60% live in poverty. As we experience in Africa, there is a huge gap between the wealthy and the church mouse poor. Our time in Guatemala was spent exploring areas leaning more towards the middle. Of the 26 languages spoken, Spanish is their official language. Half the people are Christian and the other half are Evangelical Christian. Both are largely influenced by the Maya traditions leading to a hybrid of beliefs and practices. Guatemala has 33 volcanoes, many of them still active. Together with earthquakes and a few decades of civil war these people are well accustomed to hardship.
Their history is sad and our amazing Guatemalan guide Faby explained how in the 90’s the people revolted and forced the dictatorial government out of power. The new leader was loved and was fast correcting the wrongs of the previous government. However this entailed the Robin Hood notion of taking from the rich to build greater equality. The wealthy were not obviously enamored by the idea of giving up their land. Large American investment aided in the removal of this government and since then the people have been ruled by force. Guerilla movements arose and over 250 000 deaths were incurred over the next 36 years, with millions left homeless or fleeing the country. This all remained a secret to the outside world until an indigenous Guatemalan woman, Rigoberta Menchú’s entire family were murdered. This drove her abroad and for the first time someone spoke out. In time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1996 peace agreements were signed. Only now are people being charged for genocide, however this process is slow and many of the guilty are still in government and denying charges. This story mirrors the tragic Cambodian Pol Pot regime and its wounds are equally raw. To this day people do not trust their police or government. Corruption is rife and trust is low. Yet out of this all too familiar past, has emerged an optimistic, smiling nation. Guatemalans are generally happy, warm people. They are resourceful and able to laugh at themselves. They are a gentle nation with a solid culture. Better looking, I thought, than their Mexican neighbours, their country produces fruit and vegetables so they all look healthier (and taller) on arrival too.
An easy trip across the Belize border and a fee of 37.50 Belizean Dollars (2 to 1 US Dollar) brought us into Guatemala. The cultural roots felt stronger the moment we crossed the border bridge and drove back into Spanish speaking territory. We drove though a fascinating Guatemala City. With 4 million people, locals consider it to be more dangerous than Mexico City. Where drug wars are rife and you are likely to be killed for 20 Quetzales (yes I also thought this sounded like home). The streets were long and telephone cables hung overhead in clumps. Every building was a different colour and poverty was endemic. We simply changed busses and left the city as soon as we entered it. We were all glued to the windows admiring the brave souls that dared to roam the streets. Tightly packed metal housing polluted the steep hillside as we left the city. Much like it does in Rio de Janeiro.
This is an island on Lake Peten Itza. It was a delightful, slow paced village, which took 15 minutes to walk around in its entirety. We had a delicious lunch of local Blanco fish and Hochata (coconut rice drink) at a pastel coloured restaurant with a lake view. The island is touristy with locals selling their handmade crafts on every cobblestone corner. Each night a local market on the lake’s edge, sold cheap, tasty dinner treats and delicious cakes.
The key highlight in this area is Tikal. This is Guatemala’s largest Maya site with well-excavated temples and pyramids. We left Flores at 5am for the 45-minute drive. Thick white mist hung over the jungle as a ball of orange fire gently rose above the dense jungle. Tikal opens at 6am so the sooner you get there the better, as the jungle buzz quietens in the heat of the day. It is an overwhelming place, ideal for a day of wondering. One can get lost admiring the engineering accomplishments of the Maya and exploring the jungle splendors, with over 400 species of birds. Roaring howler monkeys and squawking parrots provide nature’s soundtrack along the rugged jungle path between ruins.
Only 3% of the site, spread out over 16 square km’s has been excavated. They estimate that it would take 10 000 people, 300 years to fully excavate and restore. Seeing the dense vegetation surrounding the structures it was difficult to picture the once red temples that had housed the 150 000 strong population around 700BC to 900AD. At the time, this Maya nation had grown to half a million people, London at that same time only had about 15 000 people. Each new king would instruct his nation to build new structures.
Every 52 years was a new building cycle. Just like Russian dolls, they would build structures upon structures. Size representing power and connection to their gods. They built caves into the underworlds to be in touch with their ancestors. Only kings had access to this privilege. Tikal has temples, pyramids, market places, residential homes, food cellars and ball courts. Unlike Mexico, which only built pyramids for ceremonial worshiping of their gods. One of the best noted rituals, viewed and documented by the Spanish, was how a king would pierce his penis so the blood could fertilize the field to ensure good crops. Queens would pierce their tongues to give their blood back to the earth. They did not have a calendar like the Aztecs did, they used astronomy as their guide for everything and so their buildings were perfectly aligned to the stars.
Our crazy guide Juan brought this lost world to life for us. With a smoke in one hand a beer in the other, at 9am, he constantly entertained us with his well-researched views. His dislike for the Catholics was evident as he explained how they barbarically came in, tore down Maya structures and enforced their own beliefs. He said he doesn’t understand why the human sacrifices the Maya made is so frowned upon when Christianity is built upon the human sacrifice of Jesus. An interesting comparing thought. With much puffing we walked to the top of the tallest temple on the American continents (tallest temple in the world is in Bosnia), which is where a scene from the first Star Wars movies was filmed. I animatedly brought up the movie Apocalypto, to my detriment, as the guide went off at how inaccurate that depiction was as it mixes cultures, time periods and civilizations.
Besides looking up at the limestone structures, I was even more interested in tracking down the howler moneys, which I eventually found on a solo bundu-bashing mission through the jungle. I recall admiring this ferocious sounding creature as a toucan landed on a tree next to me. On returning to the group, our guide had found a tarantula. It was about 3 years old and they live until about 30 so it was a giant adolescent. Due to the setting, what would normally make me flee in tears made me interested and intrigued. This gentle, fluffy creature slowly walked up his arm. I bravely, seemingly suicidally held out my arm to hold this 8-legged beast. At first I couldn’t look at it, as I felt certain I would burst into a flood of tears if I dared peek. My heart pounded as he removed the poor creature that couldn’t cling on to my shaking hand. Dissatisfied with the photos and motivated by surviving this event, I held it a second time. This time feeling quite brash and cheerful. I allowed it to walk up my arm and although my hands shook I was completely excited and shocked at myself. The mind is amazing. Something I couldn’t comprehend at home now seemed fairly natural in a Guatemalan jungle when on an adventure trip. The rest of the day is a blur as it took several hours for the shock to subside. I have looked at the photos hundreds of times in disbelief and couldn’t wait to share the news of this bizarre incident.
From the high of relaxing Flores and captivating Tikal, we journeyed for 3 hours to Rio Dulce. It indeed was a ‘Sweet River’. We reached our riverfront, hotel on stilts by boat. The locals shook their heads to see a group of 15 girls (and one poor guy) arrive with mountains of luggage. A popular retirement area for wealthy foreigners, the bay was scattered with catamarans and sailboats. Our hotel was a little piece of paradise. Our room was one story high. It had no doors or windows. The wooden beds with mosquito nets looked out onto the calm Lake. The room swayed as people walked on the wooden walkways below. Nightclub music travelled across the lake all evening so Lady Gaga drowned out the early evening sounds at this tropical Eco resort. In the morning birds, boats and glorious, noisy nature woke us. By day, we sauntered between the hammocks, restaurant and lake swim. The stress of choosing which relaxing activity to do next was heavenly. I never wore shoes once and smiled constantly knowing how blessed my life was.
The journey to this market was an intrepid bus journey on a single lane road, which wound up and down densely covered mountains. 170 degree turns drove me to close my eyes and hope for the best. It reminded me of the endless, mountainous roads in Cyprus. Needless to say we arrived feeling queasy and needing a stiff drink. The markets operate on Thursdays or Sundays and are an array of organized chaos. There are people in every direction. Vendors sell from raw chicken to gold jewelry, from the same stand. The fruit and veg market was bustling and the bright colors assaulted our senses at every turn. Kids followed us around trying to sell bookmarks and worry dolls. Wire, wood, beaded and precious stone (jade and turquoise) jewelry was bountiful. Everything is bargained for. When an 8 year old out bargained me on arrival, I conceded that a life in sales is clearly not my forte. It was an exhausting few hours hanging out with the short, round, darker skinned locals. Our guide joked that the reason the people are so short is because they go straight from breast milk to black coffee due to the poverty. They also call it ‘sock water coffee’, as in Mexico. A sweetened black drink not nearly resembling what the western world enjoy from their countries. Ironic I thought not to be able to find any good coffee in Central America, as it is all exported. I am more likely to find a good Guatemalan coffee in Benoni than in Guatemala.
Home stay in San Jorge
Part of the ‘Central American Explorer’ tour took us to a village to spend a night in a local home. Having done this on Lake Titicaca, Peru I had an inkling of what to expect. We were dropped off at the town square and one by one families came to collect their foreign guests. They looked as nervous as we did. My roommate Dani and I spent the night in a humble home on a ridge, overlooking Lake Atitlan. The family we stayed with was modest, friendly and kind. The husband spoke some English as he worked in a travel agency. His wife wore traditional clothing and said very little as she served him his meal. They had a daughter named Nidia who performed and demanded attention as much as any other 3 year old I know. We took gifts of rice, beans, biscuits and a toothbrush for the child. She was enamored with it and brushed her teeth immediately. They were a rotten off-brown colour so it seemed like the prefect gift. The family lived in a home they were proud of. They had saved for 5 years to buy the bricks to build it. It had 4 separate rooms (our guest room, the room the 3 of them slept in, toilet & a kitchen) combined all would fit into the size of my bedroom at home and it cost them 80 000 Quetzals.
We tried on the traditional outfits which cost between 1.5 to 4 000 Quetsales. We helped cook dinner, which involved us making tortillas. A staple diet and served with every meal. This corn snack aroma could be smelt throughout the village and throughout Latin America. I decided to start a trend I was certain would be the next big thing in Guatemala, and made square tortillas. Design copyright still pending. The quiet family dinner consisted of black beans, rice, salsa and a small piece of chicken. We drank a hot drink, which consisted of boiled corn and sugar, as insipid as it sounds. As we ate my Aussie roommate and I spoke English while the family spoke their local Maya language called Kaqchikel.
There are 3 000 families that live in the self-governed village of San Jorge. They don’t have any crime. The last thief they had a few years back, was killed by the villages. Everyone knows everyone so reputation is key in these small communities. A topic we discussed for ages was families. Guatemalan ladies get married from the age of 15 (so you can imagine the look I got when I said I was 31 and unmarried). Marriage is a process consisting of the boyfriend going to see the daughters’ father. They converse over the food the suitor has brought. Usually a treat of coke and bread.
This may need to happen a few times and each time he brings more member of his family into the conversation. For the family we stayed with, he needed to ask for his wife’s hand in marriage 4 times over a period of 6 months before the families all agreed on the wedding details. Nobody lives together before they are married and divorce in these small communities is almost non-existent. ‘Till death do us part,’ has a far more real meaning, than how our western world understand it. They manage to suffer and celebrate through life together and just make it work. Not doing so isn’t an option, like we know it to be. We debated the pros and cons of both for much of the evening. Many Central Americans have large families although they are poor. For the same reasons as we find back home, the poor communities know no better. They see a large family as an opportunity for greater wealth and to be honest they are all quite happy. Being Catholic and not believing in contraception also plays a role in them having from 6 to 15 children. Our host said his sister has 8 kids. Although the government offers free education she cannot afford their schoolbooks or uniforms so none of the kids go to school. Often kids only go to primary school and no value is seen in high school, when they only have a future in agriculture or building. Kids are sent out to work at an early age and it was common for us to be approached at all hours of the day and night by young kids offering to polish our shoes or sell us a woven bracelet or tourist trinket.
All evening people walked past the short gate offering friendly greetings. We could hear the conversations and radios from the homes in the area as the walls are thin and people loud. For us to get into this house, at the top of a hill, we had to literally walk through 4 families homes. Having a fight must be dreadful I kept thinking, as everyone would hear every word for a few roads away. A small blessing we take for granted in out gated estates and adequately built homes back home.
Chickens, dogs, birds, trucks hooting and the sound of pots clanging awoke us. The sunrise was special yet dulled by the smog. Several thick smells hung in the air. I watched several ladies walk to the edge of the cliff and throw their rubbish over it, a daily occurrence due to no trash removal service in the village. Breakfast consisted of tortillas, eggs and beans. When reunited with our tour group we all had stories to tell about our modest night stay. Nobody had showered as the village only gets water every two days. Open-air basins outside contain water for washing dishes, brushing teeth and cooking.
A touristic town with streets lined with stores and markets. The town was far easier to navigate with less hassle than Chichi. It was pleasant to wonder around and there was no need to leave the main road. Locals were friendly and poor, often dropping prices dramatically without you needing to say a word. In the evening we visited a great local restaurant called Chero’s Bar. We ate the locally adopted Salvadorian dish called Pupusas which are basically tacos filled with cheese with a choice of an additional filling option such as pork or beans. Then garnished with salsa and coleslaw. From there we went to a local outdoors bar and listened to a local bar while drinking rum punch and chatting the night away.
Lake Atitlan is 130km squared and is the deepest lake in Central America. It is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is surrounded by indigenous villages, which can be visited by boat. Sadly, the area was covered in trash and thick smog hung in the sky. We could not see the 3 volcanoes, which surround the lake. The government has asked people not to burn the fields, which they use petrol to do, as this destroys the fertility of the land. Yet the farmers know no other way and can’t afford other methods. As with people living in poverty across the world, there is no sense of conservation. Fish are to eat, no matter their size and rivers form a natural dustbin.
An interesting fact is that the Guatemalan Quetsales is worth more than the South African Rand. It is approx. 80c to R1. They have less people in a far smaller country with over 50% below the poverty line. Yet they have 1 million people living in the USA consistently sending money home. This has aided the strength of their currency, which has remained stable for the last 15 years and overtaken the Mexican Peso at the same time.
Entry into the city founded in 1543 is through a tall wall of lush green, as you wind between mountains. Antigua was founded as the countries capital after a mudslide destroyed the former capital. In 1773 an earthquake devastated the city and forced the capital to be moved to Guatemala City. Many of the colonial buildings have been carefully restored to their original glory. The city exudes a unique atmosphere of history, intrigue and surprise. It is a highlight to visit and my favourite on the tour.
We spent 3 nights in this beautiful city but a week wouldn’t have been long enough. Declared a World Heritage Town, it has cobblestone streets, single story, red and yellow buildings. Doors have heavy, wooden, carved doorframes. Each street offers so much to explore with earthquake remains, amazing coffee and interesting tiny restaurants. I loved every minute and would return tomorrow. The best coffee and wifi was at Fernando’s. He is lovely to chat to and speaks great English. I randomly met a friendly local man there one afternoon and we debated his counties strengths and weaknesses for ages. He’d studied in Germany and so listening to his views was interesting. He explained how as a Guatemalan, he chose to study in Europe so he could be treated as an equal. In the USA he’d be looked down upon as casual labour. As a way to stop Guatemalans from crossing the border into the USA they now need to have a visa to go to Mexico. The USA hopes this will decrease the problem at their border, if they are stopped before even entering Mexico. Pointless he says as one can easily cross the border in several spots if needed and just annoying for law-abiding citizens who frequently visit Mexico.
Antigua has great street food. A packet of chopped up mango with lemon juice and ground pumpkin seeds were a daily treat. I sampled their guacamole; cheese and salsa topped cold chicken pies and enchiladas (crispy tortilla topped with a mountain of coleslaw and a selection of other toppings) for 10 Quetsales. The best banana bread in town is just up the road from the cathedral at Dona Luisa Xicotencatl. Delicious double chocolate biscuits are bought at a store called Cookies etc. The best chocolate is from the Choco Museum, next to the banana bread bakery. I sat on a balcony overlooking the town square drinking rich aroma coffee as artists entertained the crowds in the park below.
I went to two salsa dance classes. They were in a tiny garage studio on the street so passers by stopped and peered in having a chuckle as the left footed gringos. Marin, our rhythmic Latin dance teacher was a legend and I would have stayed in Antigua a month longer just to be taught this poetic dance by him.
An earthquake had destroyed the cathedral. They have restored the front portion, but have left the rest of the ruins for people to explore. Such an interesting visit. Horrific to imaging how such mighty columns came tumbling down as the ground shook. This was the first time the devastation and realities of an earthquake set in for me.
An absolute highlight was the steaming Pacaya Volcano hike. This is Guatemala’s most active volcano and an experience like no other. A 1.5 hour hike at 6am, uphill was a great workout. Antigua is 1500m and the climb goes up to 2600m. We walked on coarse, black, sand-like volcanic ash and had an informed guide to show us the way. With much panting we reached the top and discovered a lava shop selling lava jewelry. The volcano last erupted on 27 May 2010 so we were no longer allowed to summit. From the base camp we could see black rock been flung into the air every few minutes with a loud corrugated iron sounding bang. We roasted marshmallows in a steaming crater as we admired the view. Such fun and so different from the normal mountain hike. The surrounding black was stark and full of energy.
On our last evening we said goodbye to friends on our tour and went to The Rainbow Bar for a yummy dinner and live music. A house tequila, rum punch, tequila sunrise filled evening followed at a Salsa Dance club. Watching locals move their hips and do a variety of local dances was a treat. It made me so dearly wish I’d been born in Latin America!
Leaving Guatemala we said goodbye to the crazy chicken school busses with people piled high and the modest people with colorful traditional dress. Their exotic animals and vast lakes. Their active volcanoes and ruins, lost to the jungle. Their over-the-counter antibiotics and the potential to still be so much more. Their quaint colonial cities, and courage to rebuild their earthquake-ridden lives. They are blessed with salsa in their blood, genuine warm smiles and the best banana bread. x